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The Gothic Cathedral and Its Role in the Catholic Church

Notre Dame de Paris, France.

I embarked on a study of the Gothic Cathedrals in France after the fire at Notre Dame de Paris in April 2019. I never realized just how important these places were. One cannot fully appreciate the beauty of these cathedrals without learning a bit of the history behind them.

The cathedrals were the cornerstone of French cities, as well as a powerful symbol of Catholicism in Europe. The Catholic faith, which was the “official religion” of the time, dominated every aspect of life in the Middle Ages. People were expected to abide by the rules of the church and those that failed to do this were often persecuted. Catholicism had a role in the political landscape as well, as clergy members often held positions of influence over the monarchies. They could replace or remove any individual from their position at will. The Pope held higher office than the king, even. If the Pope didn’t like you, out you went.

The idea for the Gothic Cathedral came about during the middle of the twelfth century. Abbot Suger, a Catholic builder and Abbot at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, decided that his aging church needed to be rebuilt. When contemplating the design of the church, he knew he wanted a style that would best reflect the influence of the monarchy on the Catholic church as well as to create a space that could accommodate the many people who came to visit the burial place of Saint-Denis, the patron saint of France. With the assistance of Louis VII, the first Gothic cathedral was built. This new style of architecture, with its soaring heights, multitude of richly coloured stained glass windows and spacious, light-filled interior, Saint-Denis became the benchmark of the Gothic cathedral movement and would influence the building of other Gothic cathedrals around France.

The cathedral itself was a work of art. Sculptures were built into the outer facades, often encompassing the entire building. The interiors of the cathedrals were like stepping into a wonderland of sensations. Eyes were drawn upwards to the multitude of stained glass windows which flooded the cathedral with a kaleidoscope of colour. Huge organs filled the space with hymns that calmed the mind. The scent of the incense used during Mass often lingered, adding to the soothing ambiance of the cathedral. Visiting these cathedrals was truly an ethereal experience.

West Facade, right Royal Portal — General View of Tympanum c. 1145. Cathedral of Chartres, France.

Rose window at Abbey Church of Saint-Denis.

An important aspect of the growth of Gothic architecture during the middle ages was the belief that light was the spiritual path to God and was intended to express the soul’s longing for God. It also validated the Catholic church’s power over society. This union of beauty, power, money and religion gave rise to some of the most expansive and elaborately detailed structures ever built. But, these cathedrals became more than just a place to worship God. They were a refuge from the darkness of the Middle Ages, they were a place where community happened. They told the stories of the Bible for those who couldn’t read, or who never really stepped foot in a church. As new cities sprang to life, the cathedral became its anchor; they were developed around the cathedral instead of the cathedral being built to fit into the city. Tradesmen from all over Europe and the Middle East came to France to help build these monoliths, adding their influences to the design of the cathedral.

“Medieval Town” by gaciu000 on

The construction sites became a mecca for education, diversity and new ideas. They became, in essence, an enclave, a bohemia of intelligence and innovation. This influenced art, food, religion, and much more as people arrived from across the lands. The construction boom took advantage of the peace that had finally settled in Europe after years of wars and strife. Its influences were felt far and wide as people came and went during the construction, which often spanned decades and even centuries. These buildings were complex. They were a puzzle of sorts. Each piece had to be exact. There was a method to the madness, so to speak. Slowly built, layer upon layer, they aimed skyward in hopes of capturing the beauty of heaven. Each cathedral constructed yearned to outdo its former in height and design. Bigger had to be better. However, the race for higher and lighter often ended in disaster. There was only so much defiance of the laws of physics that one could pull off. These were lessons learned the hard way.

Wooden support beams at Beauvais Cathedral were installed to keep the transept from collapsing.

The Cathedral Today

The life of a cathedral has always been fluid. The throngs of people who come and go through these magnificent structures now mimic what life was like at the apex of cathedral development in France. Then, as now, people would come to the cathedral to venerate the saints, ask for intercession, celebrate the numerous feast days within the Catholic calendar, as well as attend market fairs that were held in and around the cathedrals. The influx of revenue generated by the tourists adds to the financial coffers for the maintenance of the cathedral as well as adding much-needed funds to the various cities in which these cathedrals are located. These buildings have become living, breathing monuments of innovation and engineering that have withstood the test of time.


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